One of the best ways to develop a picture of any company is with the SWOT analysis -- a look at a company's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Today, I'd like to focus on Intuitive Surgical (Nasdaq: ISRG), the surgical robot pioneer that has become one of my favorite public businesses.

Strengths

  • High barriers to entry: Intuitive Surgical has more than 650 U.S. and foreign patents as well as Food and Drug Administration approvals
  • Brand strength -- da Vinci robots known among patients
  • Near-monopoly in robot-assisted surgeries
  • High switching costs: Machines are expensive and not easily replaceable; doctors trained on-site and at nationwide Intuitive Surgical training centers

Weaknesses

  • Big-ticket purchases make for a long sales and purchase order cycle: cash slow to come in after sale
  • Manufacturing these robots is complex and somewhat costly
  • Long-term growth heavily reliant on research and development successes and ability to keep top talent

Opportunities

  • Global growth: Of 1,482 da Vinci systems in use, 74% are in the U.S.
  • Domestic growth opportunities abound, too: Of 5,800 hospitals in the U.S., there are da Vinci robots in fewer than 1,000.
  • Procedure growth: Robots are used in cardiothoracic, gynecological, and urological surgeries, but there are many more possible applications.

Threats

  • If a robot has a defect, significant legal liability and brand/reputational risk
  • The health-care industry is heavily regulated
  • Imitators: Intuitive Surgical is the first-mover and in 2003 bought its largest competitor, but the threat of cheaper imitator technologies is real.
  • Competition from lower-cost pharmaceuticals that achieve what only surgery can today.
  • Payment comes from third-party payers. Intuitive Surgical customers are hospitals; hospitals get paid by health insurers.

What parts of Intuitive Surgical's SWOT need more detail? Fill in the blanks by using the comments section below.

Brian Richards is online managing editor of The Motley Fool. Brian does not own shares of Intuitive Surgical, which is a Rule Breakers recommendation. Read about the Fool's disclosure policy here.